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The Ring Of Gyges

They say that to do injustice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is
greater than the good. And so when men have both done and suffered injustice and have had
experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had
better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants;
and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. This they affirm to be the
origin and nature of justice; it is a mean or compromise, between the best of all, which is to
do injustice and not be punished, and the worst of all, which is to suffer injustice without the
power of retaliation; and justice, being at a middle point between the two, is tolerated not as a
good, but as the lesser evil, and honored by reason of the inability of men to do injustice. For
no man who is worthy to be called a man would ever submit to such an agreement if he were
able to resist; he would be mad if he did. Such is the received account, Socrates, of the nature
and origin of justice.

Now that those who practise justice do so involuntarily and because they have not the
power to be unjust will best appear if we imagine something of this kind: having given both
to the just and the unjust power to do what they will, let us watch and see whither desire will
lead them; then we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along
the same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be their good, and are only
diverted into the path of justice by the force of law. The liberty which we are supposing may be
most completely given to them in the form of such a power as is said to have been possessed by
Gyges, the ancestor of Croesus the Lydian. According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in
the service of the King of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in
the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the
opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which
he, stooping and looking in, saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human
and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended.
Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly
report about the flocks to the King; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger,
and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when
instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if
he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the
collet outward and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same
result—when he turned the collet inward he became invisible, when outward he reappeared.
Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where
as soon as he arrived he seduced the Queen, and with her help conspired against the King and
slew him and took the kingdom.

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and
the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand
fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely

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take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with anyone at his pleasure, or
kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men. Then
the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the
same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or
because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever
anyone thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts
that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have
been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine anyone obtaining this power
of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would
be thought by the lookerson to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to
one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might
suffer injustice. Enough of this.

Now, if we are to form a real judgment of the life of the just and unjust, we must isolate
them; there is no other way; and how is the isolation to be effected? I answer: Let the unjust
man be entirely unjust, and the just man entirely just; nothing is to be taken away from either
of them, and both are to be perfectly furnished for the work of their respective lives. First, let
the unjust be like other distinguished masters of craft; like the skilful pilot or physician, who
knows intuitively his own powers and keeps within their limits, and who, if he fails at any point,
is able to recover himself. So let the unjust make his unjust attempts in the right way, and lie
hidden if he means to be great in his injustice (he who is found out is nobody): for the highest
reach of injustice is, to be deemed just when you are not. Therefore I say that in the perfectly
unjust man we must assume the most perfect injustice; there is to be no deduction, but we must
allow him, while doing the most unjust acts, to have acquired the greatest reputation for justice.
If he have taken a false step he must be able to recover himself; he must be one who can speak
with effect, if any of his deeds come to light, and who can force his way where force is required
by his courage and strength, and command of money and friends. And at his side let us place
the just man in his nobleness and simplicity, wishing, as Aeschylus says, to be and not to seem
good. There must be no seeming, for if he seem to be just he will be honored and rewarded, and
then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or for the sake of honor and
rewards; therefore, let him be clothed in justice only, and have no other covering; and he must
be imagined in a state of life the opposite of the former. Let him be the best of men, and let him
be thought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shall see whether he will
be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour
of death; being just and seeming to be unjust. When both have reached the uttermost extreme,
the one of justice and the other of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier
of the two.

Heavens! my dear Glaucon, I said, how energetically you polish them up for the decision,
first one and then the other, as if they were two statues.

I do my best, he said. And now that we know what they are like there is no difficulty in
tracing out the sort of life which awaits either of them. This I will proceed to describe; but as
you may think the description a little too coarse, I ask you to suppose, Socrates, that the words
which follow are not mine. Let me put them into the mouths of the eulogists of injustice: They
will tell you that the just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound—will have
his eyes burnt out; and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled. Then he
will understand that he ought to seem only, and not to be, just; the words of Aeschylus may be
more truly spoken of the unjust than of the just. For the unjust is pursuing a reality; he does not
live with a view to appearances—he wants to be really unjust and not to seem only—“His mind
has a soil deep and fertile, Out of which spring his prudent counsels.”

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In the first place, he is thought just, and therefore bears rule in the city; he can marry whom
he will, and give in marriage to whom he will; also he can trade and deal where he likes, and
always to his own advantage, because he has no misgivings about injustice; and at every contest,
whether in public or private, he gets the better of his antagonists, and gains at their expense, and
is rich, and out of his gains he can benefit his friends, and harm his enemies; moreover, he can
offer sacrifices, and dedicate gifts to the gods abundantly and magnificently, and can honor the
gods or any man whom he wants to honor in a far better style than the just, and therefore he is
likely to be dearer than they are to the gods. And thus, Socrates, gods and men are said to unite
in making the life of the unjust better than the life of the just.

Plato. “Republic.” The Dialogues of Plato. Vol. 2. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1892.

© SophiaOmni, 2001. The specific electronic form of this text is copyright. Permission is granted to print out
copies for educational purposes and for personal use only. No permission is granted for commercial use.

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